Don’t be fooled by talk of women's empowerment. His white, male, chauvinistic administration is setting equality back decades — and making the world a more dangerous place.
- By Whitney KasselWhitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm.
There is no shortage of appalling imagery from the Trump White House when it comes to gender diversity and women’s issues, from this picture of six white, male members of President Donald Trump’s team signing the Global Gag Rule to withhold federal funds from organizations that even discuss abortion with patients, to images like this one, in which Vice President Mike Pence and a room full of male legislators discuss defunding maternity care under the proposed (and now dead) Republican health care act. Both Trump and Ivanka’s stunningly tone-deaf attempts to hold female-focused events (the president literally asked his audience last week whether they’d heard of Susan B. Anthony) only underscore the administration’s failure thus far to address — or even to simply avoid steamrolling — the interests of women. But while these gaffes are alarming from a feminist standpoint, they also reflect a broader failure to ensure the representation of women in senior government posts and to recognize women’s critical role in the political and economic stability of the United States. In this, they signify a more worrisome turn toward less effective government and a darker future for Americans.
As this sad story unfolds in Washington, the debate over the treatment of women in Silicon Valley has neared fever pitch (again). Susan Fowler’s exposé of sexual harassment and poor management at Uber shocked few with experience in the industry, and was quickly followed by Liza Mundy’s damning deep dive into the treatment of women in tech in the cover story for this month’s Atlantic. It’s far from the first sector to come under fire for its exclusion of women. For decades, companies have enlisted consulting firms, psychologists, and sensitivity trainers to make sure their workforces reflect a more equitable gender balance. But it is hard to ignore the contrast between the likes of Google and Twitter scrambling to hire female engineers and create cultures of inclusion and the U.S. federal government’s apparent tack in the other direction, with the latter showing little concern for what will be far-reaching and hard-to-reverse negative consequences.
The right-wing narrative voiced by the likes of radio conspiracy theorist Alex Jones would have you believe the push for gender equality in the workplace is another symptom of a politically correct culture run amok, in which qualified male candidates are passed over for less capable female ones and productivity is reduced to accommodate working mothers who suck up resources with maternity leave and flexible schedules. But the industries that continue to pursue gender diversity are not, by and large, doing so to meet popular expectations or to project feel-good optics. Rather, they have come to recognize that gender balance and other forms of diversity have a perceivable positive impact on business outcomes.
There is every reason to believe that this concept, confirmed by dozens of studies, applies to the business of government as well, and that having equal, or at least larger, numbers of women within the decision-making apparatus in Washington will improve domestic and foreign policy. With alarming questions around the Trump administration’s ties to Russia and white supremacist groups dominating headlines and political agendas, it’s tempting to place gender — a “soft” issue in comparison — at the bottom of a long list of grievances. But the overwhelmingly male leadership structure Trump is putting in place — with only an estimated 27 percent of appointments of women thus far, compared with 43 percent under President Barack Obama — also deserves attention.
There are various theories as to why gender diversity enhances decision-making and management, some more controversial than others. Among certain feminists and post-feminists one would be wise to limit one’s speculation as to whether women make better diplomats, or are more likely to push for cooperation over conflict. (While there is some evidence to support these claims, there are plenty of counter-examples as well. Hillary Clinton, Samantha Powers, and Susan Rice’s support for Obama’s intervention in Libya comes to mind.)
In truth, we don’t know exactly why gender balance, and specifically representation of women above a 30 percent threshold within a group, is so beneficial. There is obvious math to support the contention that drawing from 100 percent of a talent pool will yield better results than drawing from only half. It also stands to reason that a more diverse group will bring a broader range of perspectives to a problem set, leading to more rigorous thinking and a broader range of solutions. But setting aside the why, data clearly show that gender diversity leads to greater innovation, reduced fraud, and improved retention rates across organizations. Each of these would serve the U.S. government well.
These were among the factors that led the George W. Bush administration to integrate aspects of gender equality into its foreign policy. In the early 2000s, Bush, working closely with his wife, Laura, adopted women’s rights as part of his neoconservative platform of democratization and human rights, arguing that the representation of women in governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the promotion of women’s rights more generally, was morally incumbent on the United States and an important driver of peace and stability. (Whether one believes that administration’s policies actually advanced women’s rights is, of course, a different question.)
Under Obama, Secretary Clinton articulated a similar but more emphatic philosophy in what became known as “the Hillary doctrine,” by which, to quote Clinton herself, “the subjugation of women is a threat to the common security of our world and to the national security of our country.” Clinton’s philosophy was based on the idea, supported by extensive research, that countries with higher rates of female education and literacy, lower maternal death rates, and greater protections against domestic violence and sexual assault are less likely to engage in violent conflict and have higher gross domestic products and other economic indicators. Gender inequality, on the other hand, is highly correlated with military conflict, human rights abuses, and economic decay. Clinton and Obama correspondingly increased the budget of the Office of Global Women’s Issues (formerly the Office of International Women’s Issues) tenfold and created a number of new councils and positions dedicated to the promotion of women’s rights. (Requests from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s transition team for detailed information on the Office of Global Women’s Issues and other gender-focused programming at State rang alarm bells back in December as to its future, but thus far the office remains in place).
Unlike the management studies regarding gender-diverse corporate boards and management teams, the connection between the societal oppression of women and suboptimal economic and security outcomes has primarily been applied to U.S. foreign policy, i.e., to whether and to what extent Washington should be spending money on promoting the rights of women abroad. But in the era of Trump, one can imagine the dangers of poor gender balance at the cabinet or political-appointee level being mirrored by a broader decline in the status of women, a development that, again, research has shown to have a detrimental effect on development and security.
It is easy to see how this could unfold and become mutually reinforcing. A leadership cadre with fewer women (not to mention socially conservative men) is less likely to approve legislation or implement policies that support and empower women at home or abroad, and a society in which women are discriminated against is less likely to promote women to positions of power. Compounding the trickle-down effects of a dearth of female leadership in the Trump administration is the tone set by the commander in chief. Utterances like the infamous “Grab ’em by the pussy,” spoken offhandedly or otherwise, can only undermine the progress and status of women in the United States, with all the negative effects that result. (Trump’s more recent statements that his cabinet is “full of women” — not to mention Breitbart News’ recent piece, “In Trump’s NSC, Women Run the Show” — are deeply unconvincing counterpoints in their tokenism and obvious misrepresentation of the true distribution of power in the White House.)
This toxic combination will have impacts far beyond those few women who serve in Trump’s government, or even women more generally, and are likely to encompass downward trends in productivity, economic growth, and even a greater likelihood of violent conflict abroad for the United States. This is not to mention the prospects for little girls growing up with a dearth of female role models in government and fewer opportunities by way of reduced maternity care, less access to reproductive health services, and growing acceptance of misogyny and sexual harassment in American society. These girls will, in turn, shape these factors for decades to come. (As the mother of a girl born between Trump’s election and inauguration, this one hits particularly close to home.) One can only hope that they will see the Trump administration’s attitude toward women as something to rebel against — as inspiration for greater political involvement and activism — setting the stage for a longer-term shift toward a gender equality that will serve the interests not just of women, but of the United States and the world with which it must continue to coexist.
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